Shopping for a tech-obsessed youngster this year? You and just about everyone else, my friend. Fortunately, you won’t starve for options. Every year tech toys get more advanced, more capable, and more affordable.
So what’s hot in 2014? Robots that teach your kids to program, Legos that come alive on your tablet, and a range of snap-together electronics that do everything from lighting up your house to networking your gadgets. Here are 10 of the best.
1. Ollie: $100
Customizable, rechargeable, and super-fast, Ollie is the latest in connected indoor robots from the makers of the acclaimed Sphero ball. You control it via Bluetooth using your Android or iOS device; with a few taps you’ll send it hurtling around your living room doing crazy Tony Hawk-style tricks. While 14 mph may not sound that fast, it’s three times as fast as the Sphero — and plenty quick enough to keep up with the cat, which is all we really require from a remote-controlled toy.
2. Lego Fusion: $35
Though the basic Lego brick has remained almost unchanged since the ’50s, the company still finds ways to stay on the shopping lists of tech-savvy buyers. Last year it was its updated Mindstorms set — still a great choice for techie kids — and this year it’s Lego Fusion, which lets Lego fans import their creations into a virtual world, courtesy of a camera-equipped tablet. The four choices (Town Master, Battle Tower, Create and Race, and Resort Designer) should suit most tastes.
3. Tiggly: $30
Toddlers and tablets are inseparable — and, with careful supervision, can be productive learning buddies. Pick up some of Tiggly’s high-tech plastic shapes, and even younger ones can join in the fun. Putting a shape on an iPad’s screen allows the tots to stamp shapes, interact with cute characters, and tell stories. Kids age three-and-up will similarly enjoy the award-winning Tiggly Count, which lets them get a head start on basic counting skills.
4. Kano Kit: $150
Any bright kid will be thrilled at the chance to build his own computer. The Kano includes a hacker-friendly Raspberry Pi motherboard, a smart, customizable case, and all the cables and accessories you need to get coding. Best of all is the way the operating system and included books will guide your kid through the basics of programming — and once done, it’s a fully functional (though simple) computer.
5. Anki Drive: $150 for starter set
Remember slot car racing? Cool. Now forget about that, because Anki Drive makes your old slot car set look positively prehistoric. First launched last season, this high-tech kit lets you race sleek, sporty race cars around a rolled-out vinyl track using an iOS or Android device. New AI-controlled cars and deep, video game-like customization have improved what was already a compelling experience, though like slot cars, you’ll need a good amount of space to set it up and play.
6. Kinetic Sand: $20
High-tech sand? Believe it. Mess-free and fascinating, this bizarre substance flows just like wet sand, can be shaped like wet sand, and is as much fun to play with as wet sand, but without any of the gritty residue. Kids will love the way it holds a shape and takes a mold; you’ll love it for the weirdly soothing way it slips through your fingers, plus the fact that it doesn’t find its way into every crevice. Buy it for the kids, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself sneaking a lump to work for stress relief.
7. littleBits: $100 for base kit
Fooling about with electronics is both educational and entertaining, but the need for tools like soldering irons has always put it out of reach of pre-teens. Not anymore. LittleBits is an innovative range of more than 60 diverse electronic components that snap together with magnets: the kits feature everything from lights, switches, and resistors to sensors, programmable chips, and Internet-enabled networking. The latest is something even grown-ups might want to try building: the Smart Home Kit is a quick, affordable way to brighten up the house.
8. Zoomer Dino Boomer: $100
Robot puppies? So last year. The latest offering from Zoomer is a two-legged T. rex that roars, roams, and generally rampages around the house. Even though it looks precarious, you’ll be surprised at how well it can balance. The rechargeable battery will be a welcome relief for parents tired of most toys’ insatiable appetite for AAs.
9. Roominate: $30 and up
Dollhouses are swell, but if you’re looking for something with a little more tech pizzazz, Roominate’s got you covered. Loaded with motors, lights, circuits, and switches, these modular play spaces turn this Barbie-dominated genre into fertile ground for teaching basic STEM skills. No architectural or engineering degree needed.
10. Dash and Dot: $200 and up
Every kid needs a robot, right? From Wonder Workshop come Dash and Dot, two adorable, programmable bots you control via an iOS or Android device. A variety of apps let younger kids program movements; interesting accessories let the robots play musical instruments, act as roving cameras, and do other cute tricks. More advanced apps touch on real programming languages, too, so the ’bots and tots will grow together. The drawback? The whole kit and caboodle is a little pricey, though you can start small with one robot at a time.
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